On Fatherhood

My friend Kurt Armstrong organized a night of short talks about fatherhood at St. Margaret’s Anglican church in Winnipeg. The week before a panel of mothers gave their talks. It was a small gathering but very powerful. Probably the highlight of the night on fatherhood was listening to Dustin Beniston’s deeply moving talk about being raised without a father, and proceeding to do some great exegesis on the book of Job.

Here was my portion, the first talk of the night:

I wanted to thank Kurt Armstrong, who not only put me up to this, but also has been an important role-model for me, and is a neighbour who has gone way out of his way to help our family at various times. Also my wife, Rachel, who inspires me in so many ways to be a better father.

I’ve entitled this talk “I have brilliant thoughts at 3:30 in the morning” . To quote Bill Cosby on fatherhood, my wife Rachel and I were both intellectuals…. before we had children.

In the great philosophical film Tree of Life by Terrence Malick, Brad Pitt plays the role of the overbearing and legalistic father in Waco Texas, shutting up the free play of the imagination wherever he sees it, and dealing harshly with the smallest of infractions. His wife on the other hand is a figure of excessive Grace, allowing the children to run amock through the house laughing, and letting go of discipline. Their son Jack struggles to make sense of these extremes as an adult while coping with the alienation of living life in a modernist city, the endless highrises of glass and steel symbolize the conquest of nature and the absence of Grace.

While the meaning of the film with its cosmic dimensions remains a mystery to me, I think the extremes of the characters are useful foils from which to think about my own placement on the continuum, of oft-forgiving Grace and law-abiding Nature. There are many different kinds of fathers – I am certainly not like my father and he was not like his – so I wanted to ask why and what this means for my children.

This is to say, that it’s impossible for me not to place myself in a historical community of fathers, knowing we are all different but essentially have the same task and debt to society, to seek the Good of the whole by attending first to our own experience of Love. (And I think this applies to men who aren’t fathers as well.) That is why I really look forward to the rest of the talks tonight.

To take an image from the famous Russian novel by Turgenev – Fathers and Sons – there is a conflict between the anarchist medical student Bazarov, and Pavel, the traditionalist uncle who is uncomfortable with the new destabilizing science. But the conflict arises over a common object of love, when they both end up having affection for and fighting a duel over, the same woman. ….

Two and a half years ago, Rachel went into labour and gave birth to our daughter Margaret Jane. It happened in our apartment.  The midwife had only recently graduated – her more experienced partner had not yet arrived and you could see that she was nervous. We on the other hand were fairly relaxed, and I succeeded in remaining calm by becoming emotionally distant. The first test of my stoic resolve came when Jane’s head appeared. Rachel was in duress, and not expecting the baby this quickly, the midwife ran out of the room with her cellphone as I stood there looking at this head not knowing whether to catch anything, and I could hear the midwife in the hallway calling 911.

Everything ended well, we had about six firemen sitting around our Christmas tree as the paramedics arrived. I was shocked at just how emotionally distant I remained. And while I assumed the full role of a father in the coming weeks, it was difficult to think that this was really happening to me.

So in my very recent tenure of fatherhood I found that I lean toward the second extreme of excessive grace – giving our toddler Jane a ridiculous amount of second chances, tickling and wrestling when we should be praying and reflecting at bedtime, and asking myself if Jane really needs to be punished since I’ve been away from the children all day and don’t have to bear the full brunt of my spoiling. There were times when Jane and I were both getting in trouble with Mama, sometimes for doing the same things.

I was however, a little embarrassed at church the other Sunday, when Jane, now in her terrible twos, was up at communion. Having been baptized, she is usually given bread (a very very small snack in her opinion) and this being St. Margaret’s where youth are corrupted by new and old ideas, she was even offered the wine one time (I believe by Dustin). Only this time as we knelt at the altar she was deprived of it (by none other than Kirsten). And this toddler, with whom I have only recently become acquainted, screamed at the top of her lungs on her way back to the pew – “I want wine, I want wine!”  She is after all, named after St. Margaret.

I guess I’m thinking If she’s saying she wants wine at 2 years old, what will she be saying ten years from now?

My own Mennonite father only recently started drinking wine, for his heart, he says, and so the pendulum is swinging from the debilitating legalism and inner turmoil of my Mennonite grandfathers, to the inner turmoil of debilitating freedom of life in the City.

There are a couple explanations for my phlegmatic approach here – I may be consciously or unconsciously rebelling against my father in a kind of Freudian Oedipus complex, or I may just be weak, or there’s a more structural political explanation – the legacy of baby boomer narcissism is getting the best of me and I’m not really thinking about long-term consequences of my actions. I think it’s all three.

I mean, I’m a fairly conservative person with traditional beliefs, so I had to answer this question – what does it mean for me to feel emotionally distanced from my children, to give them freedom too early, to give them this neglect that masquerades as false grace, and at times to not even think of them as my own.

Ultimately I may be in a state of shock and disbelief that I am a father. The consequence of this flight is to ignore the real presence and needs of these mysteriously Other, of these other I ams. The late essayist David Foster Wallace has an excellent talk called “This is Water” where he describes the ever present choice we have to enjoy the boundless mystery of the present, or focus on the misery and frustration of unfulfilled desire.

While I was writing this on my couch with a laptop, Jane, my two year old, kept pestering me to watch Pingu on YouTube, so I gave her the time out ultimatum, which was really a just calculated decision to lock her up in her room for a while, knowing full well the cognitive limitations of a toddler would lead her to self-destruct. The fact is, I decided to ignore her, and she was punished for acting out in response to my own lack of attention.

Sure, it was Saturday morning, I had been sleep deprived for two years. The novelty of peeing on couches, puking down shirts, or being awoken at 4am just as you are finally drifting off to sleep had finally worn off. As far as I knew, our 2 month old son, Alasdair, was my wife’s child. As a newborn he did not obey the social contract of schedules into which he had been born. In our Oedipal struggle at 4am, I was ready to throw him to the ground like a glass vase.

As Jane was eating her breakfast later that morning, of which half had miraculously remained off the floor, she asked me if she could hold the baby Alasdair. Only she can’t pronounce her L’s yet, and proceeded to refer to him as “baby asshole”. My wife Rachel and I, overcome by schadenfreude for one another, burst into laughter at this “baby asshole” who now ruled our life.

We had also recently convinced Jane to flick people instead of pinch them, and this had similar phonetic results, no less comical when directed toward Alasdair – “flick you, little asshole”.

Toddlers provide entertainment, often when you least expect it. During a heated argument in which we were shouting at each other, Rachel threw her hands up in disgust and said “I just can’t do everything, I just can handle it any more!” And Jane, who just learned to ask questions, very earnestly asked her “Why?”….

So I think this attention, this presence toward being, and the Other that is discussed in so many traditions, is really a balancing act between the two necessary extremes of Nature and Grace. I think there is something to be said for the fact that 10 percent of North American children are medicated for ADHD, whereas in France only .5% of children are medicated. It turns out French parents have been rescuing their children from the “tyranny of their own desires” by teaching them that there are definite limits to when pleasure can be experienced.

In many ways the modern liberal consensus, in education and in politics, is still dominated by the French Philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, who tells us that to become fully virtuous all we must do is let nature run its course – children are to “discover themselves” rather than read books, and explore their own desires and naïve creativity rather than be instructed.

A striking example of this was Rousseau’s pre-French Revolution rhetoric of nature – a whole generation of mothers were convinced that breast-feeding alone would be the serum of freedom and justice. Nature and Grace were indistinguishable, which led to famously violent results. Rousseau was in fact, radically inegalitarian, first by convincing women that their only place was rearing children, and second by insisting on the cold-blooded meritocracy of nature. As a highschool teacher, I really wish the breast-feeding theory of justice were true, but it is, alas, an illusion. The enduring legacy of this Romantic vision is the idea that we can become virtuous without hard work, without suffering, and without each other.

Before I was initiated into Fatherhood, my abstract ideas of what’s involved were derived mostly from those pictures in family albums – pictures of picnics at beaches, fishing, and Robert Galston’s Instagram feed. I also had another delusion, the idea that I could do a better job than my own father. Well, I was soon to reap that which I had sowed.

Prior meeting my children it was tempting to think of them as a kind of science experiment – you set up the variables to ensure they turn out well. The problem is that once you have them there is no time left to fix the biggest variable in their life – you, the foolish adult, the one who is supposed to be a model of competence, the one who is not supposed to snack before supper, or leave your clothes in a heap, or watch movies when you should be reading a book. Soon your snacks and diversions become illicit and covert activities – or maybe they are just exposed for what they really are.

The fact is that our societal view of pleasure is totally out of balance with this need for Quality attention to the presence of the Other, not to mention the cultivation of virtue as a happiness for its own sake.

According to a recent survey from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, people rate sex as the top activity that brings them happiness, followed by drinking alcohol or “partying.” Caring for kids fell down the list at number five, just after belief in God and meditation. The editor or journalist, not sure what to do with a meaningless correlation, decided to entitle the article “sex and alcohol make you happier than kids and religion.”

While the survey probably asked to compare levels of pleasure, there is no way you can quantify or compare the presence of a new person, of your own children, with a physical pleasure. The meaning of presence simply does not fall under a definition of happiness as pleasure.

There are a host of other spurious surveys that try show how children actually make you more happy. Well, the fact is that sex and alcohol did make us happy, and now my wife Rachel and I have two children. To steal a quote from Robert – C.S. Lewis once said “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that.”

So, this is the world in which we become fathers, one where self-reported levels of pleasure count as a measure of the good life. Will my children interrupt the two hours of peace in the evening, and the conditioned release of dopamine I experience when someone likes my status on Facebook? I can tell you for a fact – our family is physically addicted to Facebook, addicted to diversion, and Jane often has to physically close the lids of our laptops to remind us about reality.

Scientists are trying to convince me that my love for Jane is simply a chemical reaction in my brain – a physical dependence on the neurotransmitter oxytocin. What does this have to say about the presence I owe her, that I MUST give her. You can even now take a drug that will help you feel more in love with someone, or vice versa.

Five years ago, on one of our first dates, I wanted to test how Rachel would respond to different ideas and situations – so I took her to a Friday night Shabbat celebration at the twelve tribes community here in Westgate – an amicable Christian cult of sorts, with great free food and company. Midway through the dinner, during a lull in the conversation, Rachel leaned over to me and whispered in my ear “I want to have eight children.”

I had been planning to discuss whether we were both thinking about marriage later, so this came as a real strategic shock. However, at the same time I was really attracted to Rachel’s counter-cultural resolve, and admired the idea that marriage was about more than yourself, that we would be working toward a common goal together.

This romance is supposed to continue, somehow, while 10 pounds of squirming vomiting defecating flesh pierce your ears with velociraptor terror, sending you into a vortex of seeming helplessness for which Mother’s genes are far better adapted. This year amid all the demands of life I found myself a disoriented mess of nerves and impending catastrophes. The question arises – why did I agree to this in the first place? Is there a deeper meaning to this self-imposed purgatory?

One answer is that it forces me to find a balance between nature and grace – to remember both of them in this alien landscape of technological dominance. And I think another is to find oneself embedded in the historical community of fathers and non-fathers who have a common duty: to seek the Good of the whole by attending first to our own experience of Love.

Thank-you.

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